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SAIS Review 19.1 (1999) 33-40

Making Grand Strategy: The Early Cold War Experience in Retrospect

Marc Trachtenberg

NSC-68 and U.S. Foreign Policy Today

Does the United States need a new grand strategy for the post-Cold War period? Many observers are not happy with the way things are today. They look at how American governments have handled themselves since the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 and do not see a coherent long-term policy; they do not see a nation that has a clear sense of what it wants to do in the world. They compare this with the early Cold War period, when the United States was able to pursue an effective course of action, and they hold up certain fundamental strategy documents from that period as models. George Kennan's famous "X" Article, which laid out the containment doctrine, and NSC-68 of April 1950 are the two texts most widely cited in this connection. These texts, it is often claimed, played a key role in shaping the grand strategy that helped the United States deal successfully with the problems of the Cold War period. This claim supports the conclusion that what the nation now needs is something of this sort--a new NSC-68, a new "X" article--to help it find its way through the twenty-first century.

But are such texts really to be held up as models? How important were they in shaping what most people would agree was the rather successful policy the United States pursued during the Cold War? What does our experience with grand strategy during the early Cold War period suggest about how we should proceed today and, in particular, about whether we should focus attention on trying to come up with a new grand strategy for the period we [End Page 33] are now moving into?

What I want to argue here is, first, that the two exercises in grand strategy noted above were both deeply flawed, and second, that this was no accident, but that the flaws in these particular documents derive from problems inherent in the whole grand strategy enterprise. The conclusion is that it is a mistake to think that what we need is a "new Kennan" or a "new NSC-68," but rather that we should lower our sights and try to do something more modest, namely to develop not a specific strategy but simply a broad intellectual framework that will help us to deal with problems as they present themselves.

Let me begin with NSC-68, which after all is the subject of this symposium. Did it set the course of American policy during the Cold War period? The answer is no: NSC-68 called for an ambitious policy, indeed an aggressive policy, but this policy was never actually implemented. 1

The common view that the NSC-68 strategy was a "strategy of containment"--that is, that it was essentially defensive and status quo-oriented in nature--is simply incorrect. The text of the document is unambiguous. The goal was rollback; the aim of the NSC-68 strategy was "to check and to roll back the Kremlin's drive for world domination." NSC-68 called explicitly for a "policy of calculated and gradual coercion." The aim was to force a "retraction" of Soviet power--to get the Soviets to "recede" by creating "situations of strength." This was why NSC-68 called for such a massive buildup of U.S. military power. It was not enough to merely balance Soviet power; the drafters of NSC-68 wanted to create such an enormous preponderance of power that the Soviets could be pushed back without a single shot having to be fired. 2

This policy, however, was never really put into effect. To be sure, very important rearmament decisions were made in late 1950, but in practice the U.S. government never tried to do more than defend the status quo. This was not because key American leaders from the start rejected the basic NSC-68 philosophy; the document, in fact, reflected the fundamental thinking of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the real maker of American policy during the late Truman period. Acheson, an "uncompromising hawk" as General Omar Bradley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman at the time, later called him, might have wanted to take a very tough line as soon as he had the means to do so. 3 But the rearmament decisions of late 1950 could not transform the military balance overnight. It took two full years for the balance to be transformed, and by then it was too late [End Page 34] for the lame-duck Truman administration to use its power the way Acheson would have liked.

Talk of rollback continued during the early Eisenhower period, but military spending was reduced, and the basic idea of an aggressive policy was opposed by key figures in the administration, especially by the new secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. By the end of 1954, the U.S. government had settled for an essentially defensive strategy. None of this was to the liking of the architects of NSC-68. Acheson, for example, was quick to complain to ex-President Truman about the Eisenhower administration's "weakness." 4 And Paul Nitze, head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff under Acheson and the man who had essentially drafted NSC-68, complained even before Eisenhower took office that the United States was becoming "a sort of hedge-hog, unattractive to attack, but basically not very worrisome over a period of time beyond our immediate position." Nitze was upset at this point, just as the Truman administration was leaving office, that the goals laid out in documents like NSC-68 were not being taken "sufficiently seriously as to warrant doing what is necessary to give us some chance of seeing these objectives attained." 5

Given how well things worked out in the end, given even the relatively stable international system that eventually took shape during the Cold War period, very few people today would regret the fact that the strategy NSC-68 called for--a strategy, as Nitze said, that looked toward "taking increased risks of general war" in order to achieve what he viewed as a satisfactory settlement with the USSR--was never actually put into effect. The course of action that was pursued turned out to be good enough. 6

But is this an argument against grand strategy as such? Maybe the country did not need anything like NSC-68. But did it not need something, however minimal, to help it get its bearings and steer its way through dangerous waters? Was not something like the "X" article, for example, of major importance in helping to shape the policy that was actually pursued? It is commonly assumed that this article played a major role in shaping the containment policy; after all, it was Kennan who coined the term. But this view is not borne out by the historical evidence: the word "containment" might not have been used, but the basic policy was in place well before Kennan came on the scene.

The key decisions, in fact, were made by Secretary of State Byrnes during the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, just two months after the war in Europe had ended and while it was still [End Page 35] going on in the Far East. The Soviets, it was understood, were intent on dominating the areas their armies occupied. This had become clear from their behavior in eastern Europe, and even in eastern Germany, in the first half of 1945. The United States was not going to fight them on this, but the line would be drawn and the Soviets would be kept out of the part of Europe the Western powers controlled. The same point, it became clear in late 1945, would apply to Japan as well--that is, the USSR would be kept out of that country too--and by early 1946 it was also clear that the Soviets would not be permitted to take over Turkey and Iran.

To be sure, this policy applied to specific areas, albeit areas of great strategic importance, whereas Kennan's strategy was universalistic: he called for a "policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world." 7 But framing the policy in terms of a universalistic principle is scarcely something we should admire. Indeed, that sort of approach ran counter to the grain of Kennan's own basic thinking, and the emphasis on "counter-force"--the idea that strategy could be a simple exercise in building walls--was something he soon came to oppose. It seems clear enough, in fact, that a too-simple idea of containment was the source of much later trouble; Vietnam, of course, is the obvious case in point. The implication is that it would have been better if the "X" article had never appeared and policy had been worked out more in terms of specific problems and particular interests, without regard to any overarching crutchconcept like containment that short-circuited the need for serious thought.

If the policies laid down in grand strategy documents like NSC-68 and the "X" article were flawed, was this in a sense just an accident having to do with the specific ways these arguments were developed, or does it flow from the nature of the enterprise? To my mind, one of the main problems with the idea of grand strategy is that it places a premium on a certain kind of intellectualizing. It is never enough just to call for a particular course of action; one has to justify the strategy by rooting it in a certain theory about what is at the bottom of international politics, or at least what is at the heart of the situation one is trying to deal with. Since the strategy needs to be simple and all-encompassing, there is a tendency for the theory to be framed in rather grandiose terms--that is, for the theory to overdefine or to misdefine the problem, and in any case to misdirect attention away from the real issues that policy should focus on. [End Page 36]

In the case of the "X" article, the strategy was rooted in a theory of Soviet foreign policy--a purely internalist theory, one that denied that the Soviet leaders were ever genuinely concerned with a real threat from abroad. Kennan insisted that "the stress laid in Moscow on the menace confronting Soviet society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home." 8 Russia's experience with Nazi Germany, in Kennan's view, simply muddied the waters a bit, but did not alter the basic point that Soviet international behavior was to be understood essentially in terms of the USSR's domestic political system. 9 This internalist theory lay at the heart of Kennan's argument that you could not really deal with the Soviets as you could with people who had legitimate concerns. It led to a mechanistic view of Soviet policy as "a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basic of world power." 10 This implied a policy of building barriers, not one of exploring the terms of a settlement that took account of the legitimate fears of the other side--and by that I mean essentially Soviet fears about Germany.

The rollback policy of NSC-68 was also based on a kind of theory, although the theory here did not play as prominent a role as it did in the case of the "X"article. But when one asks why the authors of NSC-68 felt that it was not enough "merely to seek to check the Kremlin design," one is able to find an answer in the document itself. A more ambitious policy was necessary because the "absence of order among nations" was becoming "less and less tolerable"; the assumption was that the two systems could not live together in peace, and that there had to be some kind of world order, either on the Kremlin's terms or on America's. Nitze took these ideas quite seriously and was still arguing along these lines at the end of the decade. 11

This "world order" argument sounds sophisticated, and many writers, including some very distinguished political analysts, have argued along similar lines. Raymond Aron, for example, wrote in 1948 that America and Russia, whatever their intentions, simply could not coexist and could not accept a division of the world into spheres of influence. The clash between those two powers was built into the structure of things; it was a clash of two world systems, each out to build a world order of its own. 12

Arguments of this sort are of course quite familiar. Indeed, it is because the basic point here is so widely taken for granted that [End Page 37] people generally do not find the Cold War hard to understand; most people assume that the conflict was ideological at its core and therefore somehow natural. And yet the assumption that the two sides were almost bound to clash with each other because of their conflicting notions of world order never really made sense. Of course America and Russia had universalistic aspirations, but they were both real states that existed in the real world, and both were sensitive to the logic of power. The United States would certainly have been delighted if the countries in Eastern Europe had been given their freedom and independence, but the U.S. government, broadly speaking, had no intention of risking war in order to liberate that area; regardless of what was said, that region would be respected as a Soviet sphere of influence. The USSR basically felt the same way, in reverse, about the communization of Western Europe; maybe this was desirable in theory, but there was no way the Soviet Union would risk war to achieve that goal. Soviet power and American power would balance each other, and in principle that balance was perfectly stable. If there was a problem--if there was something generating a real risk of war--it could not be the simple division of the world into two ideologically distinct blocs. It had to be something else.

The proper task of the strategist was to identify what that "something else" actually was, and to figure out how it was to be dealt with. But to talk about the absence of "world order"--to talk as though the real problem was to be defined in such grandiose terms--was to obscure the real issues, the nuts-and-bolts political issues that people needed to come to grips with if a basic settlement was ever to be worked out.

Or to make the point in a more concrete way: the Cold War political system was based on the simple idea that the United States and the USSR each would have a free hand on its side of the line of demarcation that separated the two blocs; if both sides had accepted that rule without exception, there could have been no clash of interests serious enough to generate a real risk of war. The problem was that there was one great exception to that general rule: the Soviets could not allow the Western powers total freedom to do whatever they wanted in western Germany, and in particular felt that they might have to take action if the West was going to allow the Federal Republic to become too strong and too independent. The German problem--the problem of Germany's status and Germany's power--thus lay at the heart of the Cold War. This, as Soviet foreign minister Gromyko told his American counterpart, Dean Rusk, in late 1963, was "problem number one," and Rusk agreed: the German [End Page 38] problem, he said, was the "point of confrontation" between the two sides. 13 But if it was, it was important to focus attention on that basic political problem and not allow oneself to be distracted by more abstract arguments about what the Cold War was about.

What then does all this boil down to? I take a skeptical view of the whole grand strategy enterprise, but I am not arguing here that no one should think seriously about the most fundamental issues of national policy. There are historians who do take that view. According to A. J. P. Taylor, for example, "the greatest masters of statecraft are those who do not know what they are doing," and he obviously put Bismarck in that category. Bismarck, he wrote, "thought always of the needs of the present, not of a speculative future," and for Taylor that was the key to his success. 14 The whole idea was that a statesman should not try to be a conceptualizer, but simply a medium through which great historical forces work themselves out; the statesman should simply ride the great historical tides without worrying too much about where those tides were carrying things. But this is a view I find hard to take seriously; it obviously makes sense to try to understand the situation in which one finds oneself, to understand how things are moving, and to frame policy accordingly.

But the thinking, to my mind, should focus on real problems and avoid grandiose theorizing. Certainly there are basic issues that have to be thought through on a fairly abstract level, but in dealing with them the goal should be to develop the conceptual framework for handling specific problems with a degree of sophistication. And this is where historical thinking can help. One looks at the problems as they presented themselves at particular points in time and asks: what could have been done at those points, and how should those problems have been dealt with? If one does this enough, certain general principles emerge: one reaches conclusions about what would have been better in particular situations, and those conclusions are almost bound to have certain points in common. Those principles then define a general framework for dealing with new problems. But I doubt whether it makes sense to try to do more than this, and I think the attempt to do so might well be counterproductive.

Marc Trachtenberg is professor in the department of history at the University of Pennsylvania. His book, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 will be published in February 1999.


1. Much of what follows is from the discussion in my article "A 'Wasting Asset': American Strategy and the Shifting Nuclear Balance, 1949-1954," in History and Strategy, Marc Trachtenberg, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991) pp. 107-115, 128-129, 135-146.

2. "United States Objectives and Programs for National Security," NSC-68, April 7, 1950, Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS], vol. 1, pp. 252, 253, 255, 267, 284, 289; Acheson memorandum of conversation, March 24, 1950, ibid., p. 208; Nitze memo, July 14, 1952, FRUS 1952-54, vol. 2, pp. 58-59.

3. Omar Bradley, A General's Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983) p. 519.

4. Acheson to Truman, May 28, 1953, box 30, folder 391, Acheson Papers, Sterling Library, Yale University, New Haven.

5. Nitze to Acheson, January 12, 1953, FRUS 1952-54, vol. 2, p. 205.

6. Paul Nitze, "A Project for Further Analysis and Study of Certain Factors Affecting our Foreign Policy and Our National Defense Policy," September 15, 1954, Project Control Papers, U.S. Air Force Historical Research Center, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, provided by Tami Davis Biddle.

7. George Kennan, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," in George Kennan, ed., American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) p. 126; originally published under the pseudonym "X" in Foreign Affairs 25, no. 4 (July 1947). Emphasis added.

8. Ibid., p. 113.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p. 118.

11. FRUS 1950, vol. 1, pp. 241, 263; Paul Nitze, "Coalition Policy and the Concept of World Order," in Arnold Wolfers, ed., Alliance Policy in the Cold War (Baltimore: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1959).

12. Raymond Aron, "Paix impossible, guerre improbable," in Raymond Aron, ed., Le Grand Schisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), republished in Raymond Aron, Une histoire du vingtième siècle (Paris: Plon, 1996) pp. 229-231.

13. Rusk-Gromyko meeting, October 2, 1963, Pol Ger, State Department Central Files for 1963, U.S. National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

14. A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (New York: Scribner, 1962) p. 72; A. J. P. Taylor, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (New York: Random House, 1967) pp. 115, 122, 129.