Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe

Perils of Dominance Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam

Read Chapter 1

The Imbalance of Power, 1953–1965

The U.S. path to a major land war in South Vietnam was closely related to a new global distribution of power. The United States’s emergence, during the Korean War, as strategically dominant vis-à-vis the Soviet Union changed the relationship between the two superpowers so profoundly that no Cold War issue remained untouched. Once it became clear that the Soviet Union could not provide a counterweight to U.S. military power, the United States had a new freedom of action, which translated into more aggressive and interventionist policies.

For decades, no distinction was made between different periods in the diplomatic history of the Cold War, because no one had noted any marked change in the fundamental relationship between the two major antagonists. Since the late 1980s, however, a few scholars have established that a key turning point in U.S. Cold War policy occurred during the Korean War and that this was directly attributable to the achievement by the United States of clear-cut dominance over the Soviet Union in strategic weapons.

Prior to that U.S. military breakthrough, the East-West balance of power was ambiguous and unstable. Both sides viewed the power balance primarily in a European context, as major powers had done before World War II. Despite the U.S. atomic monopoly from 1945 to 1949, moreover, the role of nuclear weapons in the power balance was not yet clear to either Moscow or Washington. Notwithstanding the destructive power of the atomic weapons of that period, the U.S. military did not view them as capable of destroying either U.S. or Soviet society. As late as 1949, the idea that the United States could use atomic weapons either to fight a war with the USSR or to influence Soviet behavior was still seriously questioned by many U.S. officials. Furthermore, U.S. intelligence vastly exaggerated Moscow’s ability to wage war beyond its existing security sphere in Eastern Europe.

During the 1949–50 period, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, the Chinese Communists established the People’s Republic of China, and the USSR at first at least countenanced and then actively supported the North Korean invasion of South Korea. Meanwhile, the PRC gave military assistance to the Communist-led Viet Minh war of resistance to the French in Indochina. This period of Sino-Soviet initiative in the Cold War coincided with the high point of fear in Washington that the USSR might launch a “global war.” Many U.S. military officials and some civilians felt that war with the Soviet Union was likely and that the United States should attack first. They also believed, however, that the United States could not take such a step until the balance of power was more favorable, particularly in regard to atomic weapons and strategic bombers.

The Truman administration had decided even before the Korean War on a massive military buildup that would decisively change both the reality and the perception of that distribution of power. Secretary of State Dean Acheson later recalled that the administration’s response to the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949 was to “make a colossal effort” at rearmament, creating “real power” in order to have a “psychological impact on the Soviets.” According to NSC-68, the official blueprint for U.S. Cold War policy adopted by the Truman administration prior to the Korean War, the objective of the military buildup was to create a “situation to which the Kremlin would find it expedient to accommodate itself, first by relaxing tensions and pressures and then by gradual withdrawal.”

The idea that a dramatic imbalance of military power would compel the USSR to withdraw from Eastern Europe vastly exaggerated its potential impact. Nevertheless, the massive rearmament carried out during the Korean War brought about a far-reaching transformation of U.S. Cold War policy and the dynamics of U.S.-Soviet relations. No one particular moment after the start of the Korean War can be identified as the point at which this transformation was complete. Rather, the period of the Korean War marked a transition from one distribution of power to another. By late 1952, the leading U.S. military and civilian policymakers of the Truman administration were already confident that the United States held a commanding superiority over the USSR in strategic forces. That conclusion led, in turn, to a new willingness in the part of the administration to make a military commitment to Iran and to pursue a much more aggressively interventionist policy within Iran, including a possible coup against the nationalist regime of Premier Mohammed Mossadegh, despite the risk of Soviet intervention and military confrontation with the USSR. The new policy was based on the confidence that the USSR would be deterred by fear of war with the United States.

The new imbalance of power altered the incoming Eisenhower admin-istration’s definition of its diplomatic objectives as well. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles believed in early 1953 that the United States was now in a far stronger position to get the Korean armistice terms it wanted “in view of our much greater power and the Soviet Union’s weakness currently.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff similarly believed in late 1953 that the United States was now strong enough in relation to the USSR to fully assert its rights in Berlin, whereas they believed it had not been strong enough to do so in 1948–49. “They must be scared as hell,” Eisenhower said of the Soviet leadership shortly before the end of the Korean War.


The U.S. achievement between 1950 and 1952 of a commanding military superiority over the USSR, particularly in strategic weapons, was made possible by the much larger, more technologically advanced, and more efficient economy of the United States. The differences between the U.S. and Soviet economies were therefore a crucial factor in the changing distribution of power during this period. In 1953,the U.S. gross national product was 2.6 times larger than that of the Soviet Union, and ten years later, it was still almost 2.2 times larger, according to a more recent estimate. Even more important, the Soviet economy suffered from a huge “productivity gap” in relation to the U.S. economy, getting only an estimated 20 percent of the U.S. output per unit of labor and capital input using Soviet domestic prices, and 45 percent when dollars are used. And the Soviet technological lag behind the United States was estimated to be twenty-five years on average across all sectors, which further increased the disparity between the economic bases of the two states. Thus an index of effective economic power, combining GNP with productivity and technological prowess, would show the U.S. economic power base in the 1950s and 1960s to have been several times greater than that of the Soviet Union.

In theory, the stark contrast in their respective power bases need not have ruled out a balance of power between the two superpowers. Nations have a certain capability to mobilize resources for national defense or the exercise of international power, based on the degree of popular understanding and support for national objectives, but also on the relative cost of the objectives to the population. An increased mobilization of resources may be achieved, as Thomas J. Christensen has shown in the case of U.S.

Cold War policy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, by increasing popular support through political strategies. But in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, the economy was too weak, and popular demands for a better life were too strong, to permit Moscow to mobilize the resources to compete with the United States in military power, either by coercion or by ideological or nationalist appeals. The USSR was under very strong domestic pressure, therefore, to acquiesce in U.S. military superiority over a relatively long period in order to achieve rapid economic growth and to meet the demands of its population for consumer goods.

Soviet military spending during the first four years of Khrushchev’s leadership (1955–59) thus remained stable or may even have declined— and certainly declined precipitously as a proportion of Soviet GNP. But the continued buildup of U.S. strategic power, leading to more intense pressure from the Soviet military and political leadership for a greater military effort, ultimately forced Khrushchev to increase defense spending by more than a third between 1960 and 1963. The result was a drastic reduction in the annual rate of Soviet economic growth, from an average of 6.6 percent in the 1958–61 period to just 2.2 percent in 1962.

It has long been accepted that the United States enjoyed an overall quantitative superiority over the Soviet Union in military power during the 1950s and 1960s. A methodology developed in the early 1980s for comparing the two military establishments combined indices for total firepower, manpower, and mobility of conventional forces with indices for the diversity, lethality, and precision of strategic weapons systems. Based on this systematic comparison, in 1955, the index of U.S. military power was forty times greater than the index of Soviet power, and a decade later, after both sides had multiplied their striking power several times over, the index of U.S. military power was still more than nine times greater than that of the Soviet Union. This disparity in measurable military power between the two superpowers was far greater than any other disparity between the strongest power and its strongest rival, or group of rivals, since the modern state system came into existence in the seventeenth century.

But even this quantitative comparison does not adequately reflect the significance of the qualitative differences between the U.S. and Soviet military establishments in both strategic forces and power projection from 1953 to 1965. Only the United States had strategic and power projection capabilities that allowed it credibly to threaten the use of force in regions of conflict around the world. Those qualitative differences in military capabilities translated into a sharp contrast between the two superpowers in their ability to influence Cold War issues.

The Persistence of Strategic Asymmetry

In the arid logic of the nuclear age, the primary military questions for each of the superpowers were (a) the relative vulnerability of its cities to nuclear attack and (b) the strength of its secure second-strike retaliatory force— one that was capable of surviving a first-strike attack and retaliating with devastating effect. By both of these criteria, the United States held something approaching absolute strategic dominance during the period under study. The USSR did not possess a reliable minimum second-strike force until after 1965.In fact, even its ability to carry out a damaging first strike against U.S. society was very much in doubt as late as the early 1960s.

By 1953, the United States already had 329 B-47 Stratojets with a range of more than 3,000 miles without refueling and thus capable of hitting Soviet economic and military targets on two-way missions from European and Japanese bases. That number increased rapidly to 1,086 B-47s by 1955. In 1955,SAC also began to deploy B-52 bombers that could refuel in midair and reach targets in the Soviet Union from the continental United States, increasing the number from 18 to 538 over the next five years. The number of B-47s also continued to rise during that period. By 1960,SAC had a total of 1,735 strategic bombers that could deliver nuclear weapons on Soviet targets. Moreover, U.S. B-47s based on the periphery of the Soviet Union were capable of penetrating the porous Soviet system of antiaircraft defenses.

Before 1955, Moscow did not even pretend that it had the capability to carry out a strike against the United States but relied for deterrence exclusively on the threat that its bombers posed to Western Europe. The Soviet strategic bomber force consisted entirely of Tu-4 “Bulls,” which were unable to reach U.S. targets on a two-way mission, even from forward bases in the Arctic, because of their short range and the lack of in-flight refueling. Even on one-way missions from Arctic bases, they would have taken thirteen hours to arrive over any U.S. targets, giving U.S. interceptors several hours to prepare for them. And this first generation of strategic bombers could have been shot down easily because of its slow speed.

From 1955 through mid 1959, the USSR produced about 175 long-range jet-propelled “Bison” and turboprop “Bear” heavy bombers and several hundred two-engined “Badger” medium bombers. But the Bisons were slow, lumbering aircraft, which were incapable of reaching the continental United States on two-way missions, even with refueling. Even on one-way missions, they would have been highly vulnerable to attack by U.S. air defense capabilities. Nikita Khrushchev recalls in his memoirs that when the aircraft designer reported in the early 1950s that the bomber could “bomb the United States and then land in Mexico,” the Soviet leaders asked, “What do you think Mexico is—our mother-in-law? You think we can go calling any time we want?” The Soviet inability to mount two-way intercontinental bombing missions made the Kremlin’s deterrent highly unreliable at best.

Although they were much faster than the Bulls, the Badgers could only have reached a small portion of the United States on one-way suicide missions from Arctic bases. The Bears, on the other hand, could have reached North America on a two-way mission from advanced Arctic bases, but they were turboprop aircraft and so slow that they would have been very vulnerable to U.S. interceptors. With each passing year, moreover, Soviet heavy bombers became progressively less capable of penetrating the constantly improving U.S. air defense system.

The Soviet bomber force was not only incapable of mounting an effective first-strike attack on the United States, but was also vulnerable to a U.S. disarming first strike. According to official documents on U.S. strategic planning that have become available to scholars, the U.S. Air Force was prepared throughout the 1950s to carry out a first strike that could prevent any Soviet nuclear retaliation even against Japan or Western Europe. The Soviet Air Defense System continued to improve in the late 1950s but was considered incapable of coping with a large-scale U.S. attack even in the early 1960s. General Curtis LeMay, chief of the Strategic Air Command during the 1950s, later recalled that SAC had the capacity to destroy all of the Soviet war-making capabilities “without losing a man to their defenses.” Soviet strategic bombers, including those targeted on Western Europe and Japan, were deployed at only sixty airbases at most, and they had no ground or airborne alert procedures. Nuclear warheads were not even stored at airbases. Moreover, these bombers were not deployed at the advanced Arctic bases from which they would have had to take off to be able to attack the United States. And if they had been deployed at those bases, a U.S. first strike would have been particularly effective against them, because the Arctic bases would have had very little warning time before being hit.

Even when the USSR began producing intercontinental ballistic missiles in the early 1960s, it did not alter the strategic imbalance. By late 1962, Moscow had deployed fewer than two dozen ICBMs, compared with 284 U.S. ICBMs. Equally important, even the second generation Soviet ICBMs, the SS-7 and SS-8 missiles, were unprotected and extremely slow to prepare for launch. By September 1961,U.S. intelligence had very accurate data on the location of Soviet missile bases. And although the USSR now had about 100 bombers capable of reaching the United States by refueling on two-way missions from Arctic bases, the entire land-based Soviet strategic force was highly vulnerable to a U.S. first-strike attack.

Soviet sea-based missiles added nothing to the Soviet strategic deterrent in the early 1960s. Two-thirds of these missiles were on diesel-powered submarines that were so noisy they could be easily detected by the U.S. submarine fleet. The rest were limited by the long transit time from their home bases, the short range of their missiles, and their inability to launch until after surfacing and going through a time-consuming procedure. And the nuclear submarines had weapons systems that were so unreliable that, in the first years of the program, they were sent to sea armed with conventionally armed missiles. All ninety-seven of these relatively short-range ballistic missile submarines were in Soviet waters at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to a classified 1981 Pentagon-sponsored study of the history of the strategic arms race, the Soviet ability to retaliate against a U.S. first strike was extremely precarious at best. “By standards of strategic force survivability and effectiveness that became commonplace a few years later,” it concluded, “the Soviet strategic situation in 1962 might have been judged little short of desper-ate.” Between early 1963 and late 1964, the USSR took steps to make its strategic forces more survivable by hardening silos, increasing launch mobility, and dispersing the missile sites. The first forty-two hardened missile silos for the new SS-9 ICBMs were in place by late 1964. The actual deployment of the SS-9s in the hardened sites did not occur until later, however. The evidence from Soviet sources suggests that it was only in 1966 that the USSR acquired a credible minimum deterrent force in the form of ICBMs that were reasonably well protected from a U.S. first strike.

Power Projection Forces: Two Global Powers or One?

During the 1953–65 period, an era of conflicts and crises in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the ability to project military force into conflict zones was crucial to political-diplomatic influence. Qualitative comparison of the geographic reach of the two superpowers was just as starkly revealing as comparison of their strategic forces. The United States had the capability to send naval and air forces as well as ground troops into zones of conflict anywhere in the developing world, whether to intervene in an existing military conflict or to exert leverage on the conflict. The USSR, on the other hand, lacked the means to project power any significant distance beyond Soviet territory.

Starting with the military buildup that began with the Korean War and continuing into the mid 1950s, the United States created a vast overseas network of 3,000 military facilities and dozens of base complexes that allowed it to project power into the Middle East and Asia. Six U.S. army divisions within the continental United States provided a central reserve force that could be used abroad, and at least three divisions were assigned the explicit task of responding to non-Soviet contingencies in Asia or the Middle East. And with three divisions of troops and its own tactical air force, the Marine Corps was capable of carrying out amphibious landings and combat in any part of the world. A fleet of fifty-nine C-124 Globe-masters provided the ability to move tens of thousands of troops quickly over long distances.

The U.S. Navy had uncontested control of the seas during the 1953–65 period. The Sixth Fleet’s control of the Mediterranean Sea, the availability of 1,800 marines fully capable of amphibious landings or introduction by helicopters and tactical airpower located at airbases in Greece, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Libya ensured U.S. military dominance in the Middle East. In East Asia, the United States had established forty-five military base complexes in Japan, Okinawa, South Korea, and Taiwan, including sixteen major airbases for both U.S. strategic bombers and tactical fighter aircraft and base complexes in Okinawa and Japan’s home islands that provided logistical support. By 1958, the Seventh Fleet had three naval task forces, with a total of more than 140 ships, including seven aircraft carriers, patrolling the western Pacific, ready to intervene in local conflicts.

During the Eisenhower administration, three Army divisions were deployed to the Pacific to support U.S. policy around the Sino-Soviet perimeter in East Asia, and two Marine divisions were at the disposal of the commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific (CINCPAC). The Kennedy administration further strengthened its power projection capabilities in order to be able to fight two major wars—one in Europe and one in Asia—simultaneously while also responding to a smaller “brushfire” war in the Caribbean. These forces were to allow the administration to fight a major war in Asia and to intervene quickly with large-scale forces. Thus from 1961 to 1963, the United States expanded its “strategic reserve” from three divisions to eight (in addition to the five divisions in Europe, two divisions in Korea, and one division in Hawaii) and added the airlift capability to deploy two divisions to the Middle East or Southeast Asia within three weeks. The Kennedy administration also carried out a new buildup of airpower in Southeast Asia aimed at preparing for an air war on the Asian mainland. In April 1961, it redeployed a detachment of F102 fighter planes from Japan and Okinawa to Thailand to fly reconnaissance missions in Laos and began construction on four major airbases in that country. From 1961 to 1964, the United States carried out a buildup of air-power in Thailand that would permit air offensives against targets either in Vietnam or in China.

The USSR, meanwhile, was unable to project military power outside its sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe. Until 1959, it did not possess the capability to airlift even a small number of troops to neighboring Middle Eastern countries. The An. 12, which was introduced into service in 1959, was able to carry sixty-five paratroopers or twenty tons of cargo, but its range was limited to 750 nautical miles with maximum pay-load. Thus it was able to airlift troops as far as Iraq or Syria, but not as far as the Suez Canal, because it lacked rights for intermediate refueling stops and overflights in neighboring countries.

Because the Soviet Union had no military bases in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia, it also lacked the capability to support troops with tactical air cover in any more distant military operation. The most modern tactical aircraft in the Soviet fleet, the Su-7, the Mig-21, and the Yak-28, which were introduced in 1959, 1962, and 1964, respectively, all had combat radii of between 200 and 300 miles. This meant that none of the strategically important Middle Eastern countries—Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt—were within range of Soviet tactical aircraft. Only the northwestern tip and the northeastern region of Iran and a limited area of western Afghanistan were within reach of Soviet fighter planes. The marines, the only Soviet forces capable of making amphibious landing, were reduced by Khrushchev from 100,000 to approximately 15,000, then disbanded, and finally reconstituted in the early 1960s with only 6,000 men. But their role was to operate close to Soviet territory, where air cover could be assured, not to project Soviet power abroad.

There was no Soviet military presence outside the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites until the deployment of some 40,000 troops and forty-two IL-28 light bombers (later withdrawn), to Cuba in 1962. But even Soviet bases in Cuba depended on the ability to resupply them by air from bases outside the Soviet Union—something that the USSR still lacked. Because so many regimes in Africa and the Middle East were heavily influenced by the United States and its allies, it was difficult for the USSR to obtain permission for its planes to land and refuel. When the United States imposed a naval blockade around Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, the USSR needed to refuel aircraft in either Guinea or Senegal to be able to resupply its personnel in Cuba. Under pressure from Washington, however, both countries refused to allow this, leaving Cuba and the Soviet forces there at the mercy of the U.S. blockade.

The Soviet Union lacked the capability either to challenge U.S. naval power or to initiate a naval show of force on its own. The post-Stalin Soviet leadership halted Stalin’s ambitious plans for a major surface fleet, ending the naval aircraft carrier program and the construction of cruisers that was already under way. Three hundred seventy-five surface ships were mothballed, and the thirteen largest ship-building facilities were shifted from construction of military vessels to building fishing and merchant ships. The new ships with surface-to-surface missiles that were added to the fleet from 1957 through 1964 were intended solely for defense against an attack by U.S. aircraft carriers, not to influence the course of a conflict abroad.

Without any aircraft carriers, the Soviet surface fleet could not provide the air cover and other key combat capabilities to support a larger war effort and had very limited ability to resupply at sea. A U.S. intelligence estimate before the 1956 Suez crisis pointed out that the Soviet Navy was “deprived of the mobility traditionally needed by naval powers,” because of the “wide separation” of its sea frontiers and the fact that the Baltic and Black Sea fleets, which represented 60 percent of Soviet naval power, could not exit into the Atlantic or the Mediterranean without the approval of the NATO powers. Although the Soviet Black Sea fleet began to sail into the Mediterranean in 1964, until the late 1960s, military experts believed it could have been sunk by the Sixth Fleet within five minutes. And the inability of the USSR to project power into East and Southeast Asia impelled Khrushchev to propose a joint Sino-Soviet submarine fleet based at Chinese ports to Mao Zedong in 1958, which the latter rejected. In fact, the Soviet Union did not even begin to function as a global power in terms of its naval forces until the latter half of the 1960s at the earliest.


The Eisenhower Administration’s Two-Level Assessment

Statements by President Dwight D. Eisenhower about possible nuclear war have sometimes been cited as evidence that he began relatively early in his presidency to view the strategic balance in terms of mutual deterrence rather than clear-cut U.S. superiority. Closer examination of the statements supporting the “mutual deterrence” thesis suggests, however, that they were either acknowledging the likelihood that a situation of mutual deterrence would emerge in the future or were aimed at opposing the proposals for the aggressive use or threat of military force directly against the USSR or what Ike considered wasteful spending on more missiles. Such statements must be weighed against other indications that both Eisenhower and Dulles appreciated the situation of strategic asymmetry with the Soviet Union and its political advantages to the United States in the Cold War. In effect, they held two quite distinct levels of assessment of the strategic balance, each one serving a different policy purpose.

The very first documented statement by a leader in the Eisenhower administration suggesting mutual deterrence was clearly intended to fend off policy proposals by the JCS that Eisenhower and Dulles believed would have been dangerously provocative. The JCS asserted in June 1954 that the United States should exploit is strategic superiority over the USSR to confront the Soviet leaders with the threat that a failure to meet U.S. demands would “involve grave risks to the maintenance of their regime.” This proposal for an ultimatum to the USSR had been hovering in the background of U.S. foreign policy since the Project Solarium exercise convened by John Foster Dulles in mid 1953, when one of the three teams had argued that the United States should take as its foreign policy objective the “overthrow of the Communist regime in China” and the “reduction of Soviet power and militance [sic] and the elimination of the Communist conspiracy.” Eisenhower and Dulles found such a policy far too risky, and their portrayal of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union was aimed at strengthening the case against it. In mid November 1954, Dulles argued in a memorandum that “the increased destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the approach of effective atomic parity are creating a situation in which general war would threaten the destruction of Western civilization.” He concluded that the United States should therefore avoid “actions that would generally be regarded as provocative.”

Beginning in mid 1955,Pentagon strategists began to predict the arrival of mutual deterrence within a few years. For the next five years both Dulles and Eisenhower conceded that mutual deterrence was indeed the reality the United States would face. But that acknowledgement was always related to a situation that would emerge some years in the future and was therefore an issue for planning future military budgets and posture, not about the implications of the existing strategic balance. In that context, Eisenhower embraced the results of the worst-case nuclear war scenario at several NSC meetings in 1956. He emphasized what he called a “transcendent consideration—namely, that nobody can win in a thermonuclear war.” That statement was not merely an expression of Eisenhower’s horror at nuclear war. Eisenhower was engaged in a political struggle with General Maxwell Taylor and other military leaders over their demands for a buildup of conventional forces, which the president resisted in large part for budgetary and economic policy reasons. It was precisely the unacceptability of the damage that would occur to both sides in a nuclear war, Eisenhower argued, that would deter local military conflicts in peripheral areas. Taylor complained that Eisenhower’s focus on the worst-case scenario of nuclear devastation was misplaced, because it was the least likely contingency the United States faced. But the worst-case scenario of nuclear war was useful to Ike in holding the line against vast new spending for fighting local wars around the world.

In November 1959, Eisenhower again invoked the image of mutual deterrence, deriding the possibility of using U.S. forces to limit the damage of a nuclear exchange. “All we really have that is meaningful is a deterrent,” he declared. But his statement was in the context of a budgetary struggle over proposals by the Air Force and Navy to spend more on ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles in order to build a “second strike counterforce” capability. His resort to the worst-case scenario again served his interest in fending off the arguments of those who wanted to spend more on defense than he believed was necessary.

Despite their use of worst-case nuclear war scenarios to argue against budgetary and policy proposals they opposed, Eisenhower and Dulles never believed that the United States had lost the decisive strategic advantage over the USSR that it possessed in the early to mid 1950s. Although they anticipated that the USSR would acquire a credible deterrent within a few years, Eisenhower and Dulles understood that in the meantime, Soviet strategic capabilities were still vulnerable to a U.S. first strike and that this profoundly influenced Soviet responses to conflicts in which the United States might become involved. This view was clearly supported by a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in late 1955 that found that the conciliatory policies being followed by the Soviet leadership were prompted by the “realization of... the fact that at present U.S. nuclear capabilities greatly exceed those of the USSR.” The estimate concluded that, “as long as this gap exists the Soviet leaders will almost certainly wish to minimize the risk of general war.” An NIE in mid 1956 that analyzed the power balance from the Soviet perspective reflected a clear awareness that Soviet leaders had reason to be fearful of U.S. strategic forces. “Their stated fear of the influence of ‘aggressive-minded’ leaders in the United States may be in some degree real,” it said. “They probably feel therefore that there is a background of latent danger against which they must calculate, in each instance, the particular risks attending the policy decisions they make.”

Scholars have argued for decades that Khrushchev’s claims of having achieved an ICBM capability between 1958 and 1961 deceived the Eisenhower administration and tilted the perceived power balance in Moscow’s favor. But analyses based on internal documents of the Eisenhower administration show that Eisenhower never abandoned his earlier view of the military balance. In early 1958, Eisenhower learned that no Soviet missiles tests had taken place since the previous September and told the NSC he was “inclined to think the Soviets were having some missile trouble.” When he learned a year later that U-2 flights had found no ICBM launch platforms at all in the Soviet Union, his suspicions that Khrushchev was simply bluffing about his missile capabilities were con-firmed. In mid 1959, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were telling the president that the United States still enjoyed military superiority over the USSR, and Eisenhower in turn told Lyndon Johnson, “If we were to release our nuclear stockpile on the Soviet Union, the main danger would arise not from retaliation but from fallout in the earth’s atmosphere.”

Summarizing the latest intelligence estimates on Soviet missiles in January 1960, CIA Director Alan Dulles told Eisenhower that there was no evidence that the USSR was carrying out a crash program of missile construction, confirming what Eisenhower already believed. Continuing U-2 flights aimed at photographing potential Soviet sites over the next seven months failed to identify a single site, as reported in an August 1960 intelligence estimate. As Eisenhower’s second term in office drew to a close, he had no reason to believe that the imbalance of military power favoring the United States had yet been seriously eroded.

The knowledge of strategic asymmetry and of the pattern of Soviet conciliatory policies that had ensued from 1953 onward played a key role in the attitudes of Eisenhower and Dulles toward the risk of war in Cold War crises. In planning for major landing of conventional forces in Lebanon as a show of force in the Middle East in response to the overthrow of the pro-Western Iraqi regime in July 1958, Eisenhower discounted the probability of any Soviet military reaction. He was more concerned about the “attitude of people in the area” toward the U.S. intervention, he said, than about “the Russian question.” Eisenhower and Dulles agreed that the USSR was not ready to “risk general war,” because it lacked long-range missiles and was “far inferior [to the United States] in long-range aircraft.”

In early December 1958, Dulles expressed the view that the U.S. strategic superiority gave the United States a decisive political edge over the USSR in the Berlin crisis. The USSR, according to Dulles, had “an inadequate supply of missiles” and would not resist a U.S. “show of force” because of this “relative weakness.” The mortally ill Dulles told his successor, Christian Herter, in March 1959 that if the United States held to its position on access to Berlin, “there is not one chance in 1000 the Soviets will push it to the point of war.” Both State Department and Defense Department officials agreed with this assessment. And in the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis, putting likely Soviet behavior in the context of U.S. strategic superiority, Dulles gave a background briefing to the press in which he said that the USSR would not necessarily come to China’s aid, despite its security treaty obligation, even if the United States bombed Chinese airbases.

The Kennedy Administration’s Two-Level Assessment

In his summit meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961,John F. Kennedy suggested that a rough parity existed between the superpowers, a political gesture that infuriated the JCS when they learned about it. Kennedy’s action has been interpreted as reflecting his own assessment of the power balance as roughly equal, based on his belief that the USSR held a lead in missile production. Recently published evidence has revealed, however, that Kennedy knew from the beginning of his administration that there was no missile gap, contrary to his own statements. He had been briefed by Alan Dulles in August 1960,on the basis of intelligence assessments showing that not a single Soviet ICBM site been found, despite repeated U-2 flights. And in late January and early February 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara personally reviewed the photographic evidence from satellite reconnaissance since August 1960 and concluded that the United States was in fact still far superior to the Soviet Union in ICBMs. Kennedy got the same message from a briefing by Jerome Weisner in early February, and conceded in a telephone conversation with Charles Hitch of the Rand Corporation a few days later that there was no missile gap. Kennedy and McNamara both knew, therefore, that the United States still held overwhelming strategic dominance over the USSR when all delivery vehicles on both sides were taken into account.

In July, the CIA had passed on to John F. Kennedy and the State Department a report by a CIA “mole” in the Soviet government, Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, based on his conversation with a high-ranking Soviet marshal, that the USSR had built virtually no missiles and that Khrushchev’s public statements implying a readiness for war were simply a “bluff.” Immediately after Kennedy’s hard-line Berlin speech signaling U.S. readiness for war on July 25, moreover, he was told of a study by his White House strategic arms specialist Carl Kaysen that showed that a “disarming first strike” against Soviet strategic forces could be carried with a high level of confidence that it would catch them all on the ground. U.S. intelligence had pinpointed the location of the Soviet missile sites, and, as Roger Hilsman, director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, recalled, “[t]he whole Soviet ICBM system was suddenly obsolescent.” Defense Secretary McNamara and an interagency group both recognized that the submarine-based missiles that U.S. intelligence had expected the USSR to deploy in the early 1960s had not materialized and was unlikely to do so anytime soon. As for the Soviet bomber force, which had always been dismissed by U.S. analysts, the intelligence community concluded that it would have only “some prospect” of having enough bombers survive a U.S. first strike to be able to mount any retaliation. Those that did survive, moreover, would probably be located a few bases in the Arctic and would have to be launched in “successive waves” over a number of hours, making them vulnerable to U.S. air defenses. Kennedy and his advisers also knew that the USSR could not count on having any second-strike capability, and that this weakness would affect the Soviet position on a wide range of issues, particular U.S. intervention in peripheral areas. The reality of strategic asymmetry gave United States a marked political advantage over the Soviet Union, and McNamara and others in the administration were happy to exploit it.

On November 11, 1961, McNamara outlined the overwhelming nuclear superiority of the United States and concluded, “We have less reason to fear all-out nuclear war than do the Soviets.” Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze also emphasized in a speech that U.S. nuclear superiority, “particularly when viewed from the Soviet side,” was “strategically important in the equation of deterrence and strategy.” In testimony before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees in February 1962, McNamara described the strategic balance explicitly in terms of asymmetry. The entire Soviet strategic force, he said, was “vulnerable to attack, being deployed at fixed, soft bases,” and U.S. bombers had sufficient knowledge of the locations and limitations of Soviet air defenses to “avoid or neutralize them.” McNamara declared in September 1962 that the decisive superiority enjoyed by the United States would last “for at least the next few years.” Kennedy’s military adviser, General Maxwell Taylor, wrote to him in August 1962 that Soviet leaders “must appreciate their inferiority . . . particularly in numbers of strategic weapons and delivery vehicles and in early warning.” Their “growing appreciation of the effectiveness of U.S. reconnaissance capabilities,” he added, “has probably been a shock.

In apparent contradiction to the administration’s recognition that the strategic balance dramatically favored the United States and was seen as such by Moscow, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara also seemed to assert that a nuclear standoff existed between the superpowers. McNamara told colleagues that he had concluded that it would not be technically feasible to disarm more than 90 percent of Soviet strategic forces, and that massive U.S. casualties could not be avoided, even if the United States struck first. And in an NSC meeting in late 1963, McNamara declared that, in a nuclear exchange the losses on each side would be from fifty to a hundred million lives.

As in the case of statements by Eisenhower emphasizing the certainty mutual destruction in a nuclear war, however, these statements should be interpreted in light of their relationship to a struggle between civilians and the military—particularly the Air Force—over strategic forces budget and policy issues. In 1962, Air Force officials were expressing confidence in the first-strike capabilities of the United States. One general declared privately at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis that the Air Force was “quite sure” of being able to hit close to 100 percent of the Soviet missiles and long-range bombers in such a strike. Kennedy, McNamara, and National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy realized that their acceptance of the position that a successful first strike was feasible would mean that the JCS would continue to demand much larger strategic forces in order to support the first-strike option, which would in turn provoke Moscow to produce a much larger ICBM force and invite an open-ended arms race. McNamara, with Kennedy’s support, resisted the JCS demands for the much larger numbers of ICBMs needed to maintain a first-strike capability. The assertion that tens of millions of Americans would perish in any nuclear war was integral to McNamara’s argument for a more limited force.

The position that McNamara took on the debate with the JCS on the feasibility and desirability of actually initiating nuclear war must be distinguished from the views of Kennedy, McNamara, and Bundy on how the strategic balance affected superpower relations more generally. They all recognized that strategic asymmetry between U.S. and Soviet strategic forces was a reality and that it created serious insecurity for Khrushchev, constraining his options far more than those of the United States on a wide range of Cold War issues.

Kennedy’s statement about the nuclear balance during the Cuban missile crisis reflects an instrumental use of mutual deterrence to fend off pressures for war. During an “Executive Committee” (ExComm) meeting, Kennedy said: “I think [Khrushchev] thinks he’s got enough to cause such damage to us that one wouldn’t want to accept that danger unless the provocation was extreme.” During those crisis deliberations, Kennedy was arguing against the aggressive military course advocated by most of his advisers—a massive air strike against Soviet missiles and forces in Cuba. Thus his statement suggesting that Khrushchev was confident about having a second-strike capability was clearly aimed at discouraging a military action against Soviet forces in Cuba that might begin a process of mutual escalation. Kennedy feared irrational behavior on both sides in such an escalating conflict more than any confidence by Khrushchev in his second-strike capabilities.

A number of Kennedy’s advisers did not, however, share his caution about assuming a risk of nuclear war by attacking Soviet forces in Cuba. According to an account written soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, based on interviews with the participants in the ExComm meetings, most of Kennedy’s advisers believed that it was “unlikely that the Soviets would retaliate, especially since the SAC would be on a full alert condition.” Paul Nitze, Douglas Dillon, and Maxwell Taylor doubted the USSR would respond militarily to air strikes to take out the Cuban missile bases, citing the decisive U.S. strategic advantage. Taylor wrote to McNamara on October 26,“We have the strategic advantage in our general war operations. This is no time to run scared.”

Kennedy and McNamara, like Eisenhower and Dulles before them, had two different assessments of the strategic balance for different purposes. They assessed it as one of mutual deterrence for the purpose of fending off extreme proposals from the military and hard-liners in the administration, including the proposals from most of Kennedy’s advisers in the Cuban Missile Crisis for a massive air assault against Soviet bases in Cuba. But they also recognized that the existence of strategic asymmetry conferred an overall advantage to the United States in the Cold War by constraining Soviet aggressiveness in many areas of conflict. Some of Kennedy’s advisers, moreover, were so impressed by the existence of strategic asymmetry that they did not hesitate to take the risk of escalation with the USSR during the missile crisis.

Assessing the Breakup of the World Communist System

Thus far, this account of the U.S. assessment of the East-West balance of power has been confined to its military aspect. The Kennedy administration also took into account other major dimensions of the global situation, however, including the Sino-Soviet conflict, the deepening Soviet economic crisis, and the trend toward the breakup of the world system of Communist parties. By late 1962, these elements of the global power situation, taken together, represented a further shift of seismic proportions in the distribution of power.

The Sino-Soviet conflict captured the imagination of Kennedy’s national security advisers from the beginning of the administration. “The surfacing of acute Sino-Soviet differences validates the existence of a major variable in our strategic calculations, which we should take fully into account,” a White House national security staff aide, Robert W. Komer, noted soon after Kennedy took office. Kennedy and his top foreign policy advisers discussed the Soviet worry about China, especially regarding atomic weapons, and agreed that improving relations with the Soviet Union would exacerbate the split between the Communist powers. In preparing Kennedy for his meeting with Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit in early June, therefore, the president’s advisers recommended trying to get Soviet agreement to restrain Chinese aggressiveness, and encouraging joint superpower interest in a “stable viable world order.”

By the end of 1961, the CIA was already beginning to assess the global and regional power balance in triangular rather than bipolar terms. The Office of National Estimates issued a memorandum asserting that the Sino-Soviet conflict was really “a clash of national interests,” and that a “showdown of historic proportions may be imminent.” Two months later, the CIA’s Office of Current Intelligence went farther, arguing that the USSR and Communist China “have already broken.” This put Khrushchev’s policy in a new perspective. As they watched the Sino-Soviet struggle unfold, administration officials actually began to debate whether the Khrushchev regime still had any revolutionary ambitions. At Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s policy planning meeting on January 2, 1962,former

U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Charles Bohlen likened the Soviet leadership under Khrushchev to the Mensheviks during the Russian revolution, and the Chinese to the Bolsheviks. Khrushchev had already provoked opposition from orthodox figures in Moscow by “changing the ideology,” Bohlen suggested.

Testifying in executive session before the Foreign Relations Committee in early 1962, Rusk acknowledged the advantage that the conflict between the Communist powers gave the United States, expressing doubt that the USSR wanted China to have sophisticated weapons, least of all nuclear weapons. He also noted that both the USSR and the PRC were “putting considerable energy and effort” into competing with each other, “and that, I suppose, works to our advantage.” The May 1962 NIE on Soviet Foreign Policy similarly suggested that “Soviet energies now directed against the West may be diverted to combating Chinese policies in various areas.” A full-fledged power rivalry with China, moreover, would cause Moscow to see interests on some issues that “parallel those of the West.” Senior officials then began to discuss how the United States could best take advantage of the Sino-Soviet conflict to move either or both of the Communist giants further toward explicit accommodation with U.S. interests.

Another new theme that emerged in the post–missile crisis power assessment was that the Soviet Union did not have the economic capabilities to complete with United States. Assistant Secretary of Defense William P. Bundy told a Pentagon strategy seminar in mid 1963 that the Soviet Union was “in a very drastic resource pinch,” and that it was therefore unable to compete with the United States in the arms race without danger to its own economy. In early 1964, the CIA focused on the central importance of the economic factor in the power balance for the first time. It portrayed Khrushchev as having been forced by serious economic pressures and by the “dramatic demonstration of the unfavorable relations of power” in the Cuban Missile Crisis to “find ways to contain the arms race and reduce its burden on the Soviet economy,” and thus to undertake a major shift in the foreign policy, signaled by the Test Ban Treaty.

The new clarity about the power relationship with the USSR was explicitly linked with Soviet defensiveness and respect for the status quo. In March 1963,a CIA intelligence memorandum portrayed Khrushchev as worried that the balance of power had shifted decisively against the Soviet Union and restated its pre-Kennedy assessment that the USSR had no interest in helping local Communists gain power anywhere in the world. A mid 1963 estimate declared that the Soviet leaders now understood that this was a period “when they are relatively weak and their enemy feels strong.” The Cuban missile ploy was viewed as having been “in considerable part due to Soviet recognition of this trend.” The estimate went so far as to declare that “the task of Soviet diplomacy is primarily to pursue defensive tactics until a more favorable correlation of forces can be brought about.”

The fundamental shift in world politics was so clear by the time Lyndon Johnson entered the White House in November 1963 that that he referred at an NSC meeting to “the basic improvement in the balance of power which had taken place in the last three years.” The Kennedy and Johnson administrations thus had a decidedly more optimistic view of the East-West power relationship than the Eisenhower administration had held. National security officials now understood that the USSR neither represented a revolutionary force in world politics nor exercised real control over other Communist movements. Indeed, they had reason to believe that the USSR now shared some important political-military interests with the United States. The images of a monolithic Communist movement and implacable Soviet hostility had been replaced by an image of a much more pluralistic and inherently less threatening world.


Moscow and the Emergence of Strategic Asymmetry

The Soviet assessment of the balance of power in 1953–54 can be inferred from the combination of domestic and international policies that Stalin’s successors put in place to deal with the reality of the massive U.S. military buildup and the growing gap between the superpowers in the strategic asymmetry that had emerged. The chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers, Georgy Malenkov, argued that the mere existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of the two superpowers, and the fact that nuclear war would mean the end of civilization, forced both camps to seek peaceful coexistence. Based on this premise, Malenkov called for deep cuts in military spending. Although that argument seemed to suggest that Malenkov believed that a situation of mutual deterrence or “existential deterrence” existed, the Soviet leadership clearly knew that the situation was one of strategic asymmetry. Malenkov was in effect accepting that asymmetry for a relatively long period in order to restore a seriously unbalanced Soviet economy. He had no choice but to sacrifice any notion of competing with the United States in the Cold War and to seek an accommodation with the United States.

Soviet weakness, especially in relation to the United States, thus determined the Kremlin’s grand strategy. This causal relationship was further underlined when Malenkov’s Politburo rival Nikita Khrushchev immediately adopted Malenkov’s national security strategy as soon as he began his ascent to power in late 1954. Khrushchev now accepted the reduction of tension with the United States and the Western alliance through negotiations and avoidance of confrontation as the central aim of Soviet diplomacy. He even justified his new position by adopting Malenkov’s rationale that the leaders of the United States were reasonable men who were committed to peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union.

It has long been a staple of Cold War historiography that Khrushchev believed that the East-West power balance or “correlation of forces” had shifted in favor of the Soviet Union in the 1957–61 period, allowing Communism to go on the offensive against the capitalist world. That assumption has continued to inform even more recent works on this period of the Cold War. A review of the evidence confirms, however, that Khrushchev’s assessment of the global structure of power was utterly realistic and that it did not change between 1956 and the early 1960s.

Official Soviet statements in the late 1950s and early 1960s never actually claimed that the military balance favored the Soviet Union, or even that the USSR was equal to the United States. The most thorough study of Soviet statements on the issue observed that Moscow’s assessment of the “correlation of forces” carefully avoided taking a clear position on the actual global power balance. And despite Khrushchev’s own remarks to the press about having long-range missiles, Soviet commentators refrained from claiming that the Soviet Union had achieved military superiority or even parity with the United States. What they did claim was that the United States and the other capitalist states were now deterred by Soviet military might from attacking the Communist bloc—exactly the same position that had been taken by Soviet officials before Sputnik. These statements hardly constitute evidence of Soviet confidence in a favorable “correlation of forces” in the world, much less the military balance.

Furthermore, in his discussions with other Communist parties, Khrushchev did not to claim that the global correlation of forces had tilted toward the Soviet Bloc, much to the chagrin of the Chinese. The Chinese Communist Party’s Renmin ribao (People’s Daily) complained after the 1957 Moscow conference of Communist parties—held after the Soviet Sputnik triumph—that the USSR had argued that the principal element in the correlation of forces between the two blocs was not military power but economic productivity, that the socialist camp was still behind the capitalist world in industrial productivity and technology, and that the Soviet Union had no lasting edge in missile technology. That account is consistent with Khrushchev’s public presentation of the international strategy of the world Communist movement at the Twenty-first Congress of the CPSU in 1959. In that speech, Khrushchev asserted that the fundamental problem for the Communist bloc was to overtake the capitalist world in the competition for both overall volume of production and per capita output. Khrushchev predicted that by 1970 or shortly thereafter, the Communist bloc’s economic growth would tip the global “correlation of forces” decisively in its favor.

It is not at all clear, however, that Khrushchev really believed that the Soviet Union could catch up to the United States economically in such a short period. One of Khrushchev’s speechwriters, Fedor Burlatsky, has revealed that Khrushchev made the commitment to surpassing the United States against the advice of his own economic planners and that he simply fabricated statistics to support that goal. This suggests that he adopted it for reasons other than confidence about the Soviet Union’s ability to defeat the United States in economic competition. It reinforces other indications that Khrushchev viewed the military trends in East-West relations as extremely unfavorable and was also aware that competing with the United States’s political-military power would have been both dangerous and probably futile. That appears to be his real reason for deliberately shifting the focus of East-West struggle from the military balance to the economic sphere.

Khrushchev revealed in his memoirs just how keenly aware he was of the strategic asymmetry between the superpowers, recalling that the real reason the Soviet Union could not agree to the Eisenhower administra-tion’s proposal in the mid 1950s for on-site inspection and reconnaissance was that the United States would have “discovered that we were in a relatively weak position, and that realization might have encouraged them to attack us.” Khrushchev knew very well that the Soviet strategic bomber force did not constitute a real retaliatory force against U.S. targets, which is why Soviet leaders never talked about their bomber force in connection with the Soviet nuclear deterrent against the United States. Those same fears motivated his later claims to have ICBMs that did not yet exist. Khrushchev told his son that in order to “prevent an attack,” he had exaggerated Soviet missile production to make the United States believe the USSR had more of a strategic deterrent than it actually did.

In at least two Cold War crises following his missile breakthrough claim, moreover, Khrushchev referred explicitly to his fear that the United States might go to war or even attack the socialist states and shied away from any risk of confrontation with Washington. In July 1958,when the United States mounted a major show of force in Lebanon, which the Moscow believed was aimed at overthrowing the new regime of General Abdul Karim Kassem in Iraq, Egypt’s President Abdel Nasser demanded that the USSR issue a deterrent threat regarding any U.S.-inspired military move against Iraq. But Khrushchev flatly refused. According to an eyewitness account, Khrushchev told Nasser, he thought “the Americans had gone off their heads” and said, “Frankly we are not ready for confrontation. We are not ready for World War III.” And after Mao had initiated the Taiwan Strait crisis a few months later, Khrushchev told the Chinese ambassador in Moscow that he considered the U.S. policy of nuclear “brinksmanship” to be “extremely dangerous,” and warned that the United States might even wage an aggressive war against the socialist countries.”

Starting with his report to the CPSU’s Twentieth Congress in 1956, Khrushchev’s international line, not only for the Soviet Union, but for the entire socialist camp, was expressed in the slogan of “maintaining peace.” That slogan was in turn linked with Khrushchev’s insistence that Communist parties use peaceful forms of struggle in their quest for power, arguing that the peaceful coexistence between the two blocs made a “peaceful transition” to socialism increasingly possible. The Soviet draft of the final statement of the 1957 Moscow conference of Communist parties said nothing about military means, holding up the peaceful parliamentary path to power as the only appropriate revolutionary strategy for all Communist parties. The final text of the conference declaration was modified to read that the question of peaceful or non-peaceful transition did not depend entirely on the revolutionary side only at the insistence of the Chinese and Vietnamese parties, in order to avoid an open breach with those parties. The Soviet Party had never actually agreed to that position.

The 1958 coup against the pro-Western Iraqi regime brought the most serious test of Khrushchev’s international line up to that point. The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), which had became the single most powerful political force in the country, began a campaign in spring 1959 to demand participation in the new government. After local communists in one key city carried out an uprising against anti-Communist elements, the Iraqi premier, General Kassem, began arresting and murdering hundreds of rank-and-file members. The ICP then abruptly ended its campaign for inclusion in the government and criticized that policy as too leftist, explicitly citing the internal and international constellation of power. The evidence indicates that the CPSU put pressure on a divided Iraqi Communist Party to retreat from its bid for a share of political power, a course the USSR attacked as “irresponsible.”

A Soviet spokesman openly criticized the Iraqi party’s bid for power in 1960 as an example of “premature slogans of socialist transformation... where conditions for them have not yet matured.” Even more revealing was his pointed suggestion that the lessons of the Iraqi experience should be heeded by “some Communist parties of the East and Latin America, if they are faced with basically the same task.” This was a warning to those parties that still had aspirations to attain power through means other than parliamentary elections.

Khrushchev frequently implied that the risk of U.S. intervention in response to a Communist bid for power, and of the subsequent escalation of such a war, was the overriding concern behind this international line. Khrushchev’s slogan “A small imperialist war can develop into a world nuclear war” was a veiled warning to Communist regimes and parties against the use of armed force. Occasionally, Moscow was explicit about the reason for opposing armed struggle. An article in a 1960 Soviet journal stated flatly that revolutionary change had to be brought about by means that would not lead to “military clashes of the two antipodal systems.” In the final declaration of the 1960 Moscow conference, the only reference to “national liberation wars” suggested that it was a term reserved for armed struggles by colonial peoples fighting for independence. And although the statement allowed the “possibility” that a violent transition to socialism might be necessary, it reiterated that a peaceful transition was possible in many countries. Most important from the Soviet perspective, however, the text bound all the Communist parties to pay “due regard to the international situation” in deciding on their revolutionary strategies. This codicil was scarcely disguised code wording for the Soviet insistence that Communist parties—and especially parties in divided states—should not violate the Soviet international line of maintaining peace.

Khrushchev apparently had very accurate intelligence on the Kennedy administration’s strategic force deployments and future plans. A retrospective Pentagon analysis nearly twenty years later concluded that Soviet projections in mid 1961 of the U.S. deployments through 1965 had come very close to the actual deployments. Equally important, Khrushchev’s hopes for creating the illusion in the United States that Moscow already had a credible deterrent were threatened by developments in U.S. intelligence from mid 1960 onward. When the U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960, Soviet intelligence learned from film recovered from the plane just how precise the

U.S. photo intelligence was. Just a month later, KGB chief Aleksandr Shelepin personally informed Khrushchev of an intelligence report that the United States thought it had the capability to destroy the Soviet strategic force in a first strike, although the Defense Department believed that the opportunity would soon disappear.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, a number of Kremlin insiders have recalled that in 1961–62, Soviet Party and government leaders, and Khrushchev in particular, had concluded that the United States now believed that Soviet strategic forces were vulnerable to a first strike. In April 1962, Soviet intelligence passed on another report, which it believed to be credible, indicating that the United States had made plans in June 1961 for a first strike against Soviet bombers and missiles later in 1961 but had called it off after the USSR exploded a new 50-megaton weapon in the autumn of 1961.

Khrushchev himself later said that he took the risk of introducing medium-range ballistic missiles into Cuba in 1962 because he lacked a strategic deterrent and perceived the United States as increasingly inclined to exploit the situation of strategic asymmetry. Khrushchev said the Americans had not “faced such a real threat of destruction” until the emplacement of missiles in Cuba. This point is further underlined by a statement in Khrushchev’s memoirs that was deleted from earlier volumes and only published in 1990:“To tell the truth, I have to say that if the Americans had started a war at the time we were not prepared to adequately attack the United States.”

The evidence indicates, therefore, that in 1956–57, Khrushchev shifted the focus of the official Soviet assessment of the “correlation of forces” in the world from military to economic prowess precisely because he knew that the USSR would not be able to achieve strategic symmetry for many years. From 1958 on, he was acutely aware of the parlous condition of the Soviet deterrent. After mid 1960, moreover, he had strong reason to believe that the United States had full knowledge of that Soviet weakness, and his anxiety— and that of the Communist Party and military leadership grew accordingly.

Mao and the Military Balance: “Paper Tiger” or Hegemonic Power?

Did Mao Zedong determine his international line in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the belief that the Soviet Union had achieved military superiority over the United States after the launching of Sputnik, as has sometimes been argued? This enduring interpretation of the Cold War in East Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960s does not hold up the light of the wealth of evidence now available. It is now clear that Mao did not underestimate the economic or military might of the United States in relation to the USSR, and that he fully acknowledged the necessity for Chinese restraint in the face of U.S. power.

Mao had every reason, of course, to want Khrushchev to publicly exaggerate Soviet strategic power in relation to the United States, because until 1960, China was heavily dependent on the Soviet strategic deterrent as a counterweight to U.S. military power. That dependence explains why, at the 1957 Moscow conference, Mao defended a strong leading role in the Communist bloc for the USSR on the grounds that it was strong enough to protect the other members of the bloc. In short, Mao wanted to the USSR to act as though it represented a strong military counterweight, regardless of the truth.

New documentation on Mao’s thinking during this period suggests that, after the USSR demonstrated its advances in rocketry by putting Sputnik into space, Mao assumed the it would soon have intercontinental missiles but did not believe that the military balance now favored the Communist bloc or even that Soviet military power could effectively counterbalance the United States in world politics. More important, that incipient development caused Mao to become concerned that the USSR would discount the value of its alliance with the PRC and seek détente with the United States. Thus, Mao’s strategic response to the development of Soviet ICBMs was not to shift Chinese foreign policy toward more aggressiveness, but to begin to plan for the Great Leap Forward, with the aim of building up China’s own economic and military power at a much more rapid pace in order to make the PRC more self-reliant.

This interpretation is supported by Mao’s public arguments at the time. Despite Chinese exploitation of Soviet rocket development for propaganda purposes, Mao’s two speeches in Moscow during the 1957 conference did not suggest a power balance favorable to the Communist world but rather underlined his concern that the U.S. threat to China be taken seriously by the Kremlin. His November 6, 1957, speech emphasized that the possibility of war would continue “so long as imperialism exists” and strongly opposed a Yugoslav suggestion that East-West differences were now of reduced importance. A second major speech, on November 18, predicted the eventual fall of U.S. imperialism but emphasized that “strategically we should despise all enemies, and tactically take them seriously.... [I]f we do not attach importance to the enemy in specific questions, in every question concerning every enemy, we will commit the mistake of adventurism.” Thus Mao was not arguing that the Communist states were now in a position to taken the offensive against the United States but was urging both vigilance and caution in the face of U.S. power and aggressiveness, which he implied would not be substantially diminished by any Soviet triumphs in rocket science.

Mao’s statement at the 1957 Moscow conference that the “East Wind Prevails over the West Wind” and his characterization of the United States as a “paper tiger,” which have often been cited as evidence that he believed that the strategic military balance had actually shifted in favor of the Communist bloc, were actually expressions of Mao’s long-term optimism about the greater social and political strengths of socialism. In fact, Mao had always deliberately downplayed the role of military power in his analysis of the “relationship of forces” between socialism and imperialism, precisely because he knew that the United States held such overwhelming military superiority over the Communist bloc. Mao had advanced the idea that the “forces of socialism” were already stronger than those of the imperialists and referred to the United States as a “paper tiger” as early as 1946, based on nothing more than the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and the Chinese Communist prospect for defeating the Kuomintang.

The use of the term “paper tiger” certainly did not mean that Mao believed China could openly challenge U.S. power in East Asia, even with Soviet backing. Indeed, Mao’s conduct of the 1958 Quemoy crisis was aimed at raising international tensions while avoiding actions that might provoke the United States actually to go to war. After the crisis, Mao rebuked those who had mistakenly thought that he had been denigrating the military power of the United States in using the term “paper tiger.” These people, Mao said, “did not understand the paper tiger problem.”

After the Korean War, the Chinese leadership believed that the United States probably would not attack China for at least a period of years but remained concerned about the possibility of the United States using Taiwan and/or South Korea to launch such an attack. The PRC first began to display overt fear of a U.S. nuclear attack after public U.S. threats to use nuclear weapons against China over the offshore islands in mid January 1955. Chinese officials directed the population to begin preparing for a possible

U.S. nuclear attack on China, and the phrase “sudden atomic attack” began to appear in descriptions of Chinese military training exercises. In July 1955, Marshall Ye Jianying warned the Chinese people to be prepared for a sudden attack by the “imperialists” and admitted that, in a nuclear war, the Chinese army would be at a serious disadvantage in relation to the aggressors. In mid 1957, the PLA’s chief of general staff called for broader precautions against such an attack, including dispersal of industrial bases, prevention of overconcentration of population in urban areas, and stronger civil defense.

Statements by Mao that he was unconcerned about U.S. nuclear power cannot be taken at face value, because of his need to maintain Chinese morale and to convince the Americans that China could not be bullied. Mao believed that displaying fear of the enemy would not help prevent war. “If we show fear,” he said in 1955, “the enemy will consider us weak and easy to bully. In other words, if we give them an inch they will take a mile and intensify their military expansionism.” Thus Mao’s bravado about nuclear war was a deliberate tactic by the leader of a weak and vulnerable state to resist what the Chinese viewed as nuclear blackmail by a power that had publicly vowed to work for the overthrow of the PRC.

From 1958 to 1962, Mao believed that a U.S-led invasion of the mainland or nuclear attack on China was unlikely, at least in the short run, provided that China did nothing to provoke such an attack. He reasoned that the United States would not risk its position of dominance in non-Communist Asia and the rest of the world, which is what he believed it really wanted, by launching an aggressive war against China. But even during that period, Mao always warned that China could not rule out the possibility of a surprise attack by the United States and had to be prepared for it. In an unpublished 1958 speech, for example, he spoke resignedly about the possibility that the United States might go so far as to launch a nuclear war against China. He urged the Chinese people to be prepared for a “great catastrophe, a scene of utter devastation and unrelieved disaster” if that should happen.

The summary of a conversation between Mao and the Soviet ambassador to the PRC in October 1959, found in Soviet archives in the 1990s, shows that the Chinese leader clearly recognized the extent of U.S. military dominance in Asia and Washington’s willingness to use force rather than give up any of its power positions in the region. With typical Maoist overstatement, he declared that “everything” in Asia, “beginning with Taiwan and ending with Turkey” was the “American world,” and that the Americans would “try ... to hold on to everything, not wishing to let anything escape their grasp, not even our Chinese island Quemoy.” Faced with this American power and determination, Mao said, China would not “touch them, even in places where they are weak.” These comments underline the fact that Mao took into account not just the local power balance in each country but the overall distribution of power that favored the United States so heavily. Indeed, the evidence available indicates that Mao had always regarded the offshore islands as untouchable and had no intention during the period under study of testing the U.S. commitment to protecting them, much less the U.S. commitment to the defense of Taiwan itself.

Mao’s ideologically tinged optimism about the ultimate defeat of U.S. global power was based on the belief that U.S. domination would be opposed over time by an increasing number of states, as well as by popular movements around the world. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, his strategy for opposing U.S. global power represented a revised version of his earlier concept of an “intermediate zone” in world politics. It was not aimed at pushing forward Communist revolution but at obtaining as many allies as possible against U.S. military deployments and U.S. diplomatic and economic isolation of China, including advanced capitalist states such as France and Japan, bourgeois nationalists, and, at least in Asia, even reactionary, but independent, rulers. This was not a strategy reflecting a sense that the world situation favored an offensive by the world Communist movement, but a defensive strategy for coping with the threat of U.S. power.

The massive failure of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” campaign of 1957–58, with its attendant food shortages and social unrest, was soon followed by the emergence of the Sino-Soviet conflict, which resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet economic assistance and also left the Soviet defense commitment to China in serious doubt. This series of blows to China’s power potential and security left the Chinese leaders feeling far more vulnerable to U.S. attack in the early 1960s than they had felt in the second half of the 1950s. The balance of power undoubtedly seemed to be at its most unfavorable for the Chinese regime in 1962. At the end of 1961, mass starvation had begun to occur in many provinces. From early 1962 until mid year, the Chinese Nationalist regime stepped up its threat to invade the mainland in 1962, provoking Chinese fears of a new U.S.-Chiang plan to stimulate a domestic uprising that could be the occasion for a U.S. inva-sion. During that period, Chinese military leaders saw two possibilities: first, that there would be no war for several years, and second, that the United States would engage in a “military adventure” against China, which might take the form of a surprise nuclear attack.

The Chinese were also confronted in 1962 with a new military aggressiveness by India on the Chinese border and with Soviet and American military assistance to India for use against China. In a conversation with a British diplomat in late 1962, Zhou Enlai seemed “intensely nervous” about China’s national security. Zhou described the strategic situation as one of the United States “encircling China,” citing U.S. troops in Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, and “the new U.S. military relationship with India.”

During the early 1960s, therefore, Mao assessed the balance of power between the United States and the PRC—now without the assurance of Soviet diplomatic, much less military, support in the event of a military confrontation—in the context of a dramatic worsening of both the domestic and international situations. If Mao’s attitude before this turn of events, as expressed to the Soviet ambassador in 1959, was one of acceptance of

U.S. hegemonic power in Asia, his view of the power balance in the world and in East Asia after 1959 was certainly far more pessimistic.


This chapter has marshaled the evidence that a situation of unambiguous U.S. military dominance emerged during the Korean War that was recognized by the leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union, and China throughout the period between that war and the major U.S. combat intervention in Vietnam. Although Eisenhower, Dulles, and McNamara all made statements that asserted the existence of mutual deterrence, they were calculated in each case to discourage policy or budget initiatives by the military leadership, particularly the Air Force, that were regarded by the president as provocative. Both Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and their chief advisers were well aware of the weakness of the Soviet deterrent and the fact that it reduced Soviet willingness to risk confrontation with the United States.

The stark imbalance of power shaped the basic pattern of Cold War policy both in Washington and in the Communist capitals. For the USSR, the option of trying to compete with the United States for global power and military preeminence was quite unrealistic, given the fact that the U.S. power base was many times larger, and that any assertiveness by the USSR in conflict areas would risk a war with the United States. Thus Malenkov and the post-Stalinist collective leadership and, by late 1954, Khrushchev sought to reach an understanding with the United States that would avoid any possibility of military confrontation and allow the Soviet Union to become a modern industrial power, while consolidating its control over its security sphere in Eastern and Central Europe. That strategy not only for called for avoiding actions that would provoke the United States but for actively seeking to curb the ambitions of Communist parties to win power by means other than parliamentary elections. Apart from Iraq’s abortive bid for power in 1958–59, the primary example of such ambitions that needed to be curbed was the Vietnamese Communist drive to oust the U.S.-supported regime in South Vietnam beginning in 1960.

For the Eisenhower administration, on the other hand, the asymmetry of power provided a strong incentive to pursue a more assertive policy in relations with the USSR, as well as in areas of conflict on the periphery of the Soviet Union and China. A major problem for Eisenhower and Dulles, in fact, was the insistence by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff on making demands on the Soviet Union and China that were so extreme as to risk war. Both Ike and Dulles favored exploiting U.S. supremacy for political-diplomatic advantage but opposed the policy of presenting ultimatums to Moscow and Beijing, advocated by the military.

In the early 1960s, a new set of trends—the Sino-Soviet conflict, the independence of Communist parties from Moscow, and the faltering of the Soviet economy—tilted the East-West power relationship even more sharply in favor of the United States. The impact of these developments on the thinking of U.S. national security officials can scarcely be underestimated. With world Communism seriously divided and a vastly weakened Soviet Union shifting to a more ambiguous position between the United States and China in world politics, U.S. national security officials were bound to conclude that the United States had a free hand to assert its power in Southeast Asia.

Looking back on the evolution of U.S. views on the East-West power balance during period between the Korean and Vietnam wars, therefore, we see two distinct formative periods in which U.S. perceptions were undergoing major changes: the first, from 1953 through mid 1955, and second, from 1961 through 1964. The first period was associated with the fundamental shift in Soviet and Chinese policies toward accommodation in conflict regions of the world. The second was linked to the shift from a bilateral struggle between the United States and the Communist Bloc to a triangular political structure involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. It is not merely coincidental that it was during these two periods of change in the reality and perception of the configuration of power in the world that the United States made the policy decisions that took it down the path that ultimately culminated in a major war in Vietnam.