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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,