The Cold War military balance was defined by three phases. The first phase, marked by the U.S. nuclear monopoly, was ushered in by the use of atomic weapons against Japan in August 1945 that were employed to influence the Japanese decision to surrender. The fact that the beginning of the Cold War coincided with the dawn of the nuclear age ensured that the history of the two would become inextricably intertwined.
As the postwar period progressed, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union rapidly deteriorated. From the Soviet perspective, American insistence upon free elections in what it saw as its sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, the threat of capitalist encirclement by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, and the American nuclear monopoly combined to portray a hostile picture of the West. In much the same way, Western democracies perceived a growing Soviet threat to liberal capitalist democracies around the globe. Communist threats to both Greece and Turkey in 1947, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and the Berlin Blockade (1948–1949) all seemed to confirm that the Soviets were intent upon world domination.
Yet in spite of this growing hostility, U.S. officials were reasonably confident that as long as the United States held the nuclear monopoly, the threat of Soviet military aggression against core interests was minimal. In the immediate postwar period, this monopoly proved vital in counterbalancing the Soviet Union's massive conventional military advantage, itself a by-product of the war against Germany on the Eastern Front. This correlation of forces ensured that relations between the two Cold War powers remained relatively stable.
August 1949, however, marked a crucial shift in the Cold War military balance. On 29 August the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic weapon, years ahead of most predictions. U.S. national security planners came to believe, moreover, that by 1954 the Soviets would possess sufficient nuclear capacity to launch a devastating strike against the United States. With its possession of nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union could initiate a conventional assault on Western Europe and could be relatively secure in the knowledge that a U.S. nuclear response would be thwarted by the threat of a nuclear counter-response from the Kremlin. If the United States and NATO chose not to increase their conventional forces, Soviet aggression after 1954 would force either free world appeasement or nuclear devastation. This urgency, combined with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, underpinned President Harry Truman's response to the National Security Council's NSC-68 report, which called for a massive conventional and nuclear military buildup. This policy, driven by the shattering of the U.S. nuclear monopoly and the Korean War, ushered in the second phase of the Cold War military balance: American nuclear superiority.
The underlying fear of the consequences that accompanied Soviet nuclear capabilities in the absence of an adequate conventional deterrent defined the Truman administration's new post-1950 defense posture, which redressed the military balance through a vast conventional rearmament program both at home and in Western Europe. Because conventional forces were generally more expensive than nuclear weapons, the Korean War stalemate and the American preoccupation with rearmament led to budget deficits, inflation, rigid governmental controls on prices and wages, materials shortages, and what many considered to be the beginnings of an American garrison state. Capitalizing on these difficulties, Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower based his 1952 election platform on a more cost-effective national security posture. The Korean War seemed to provide ample evidence that the Truman administration's approach was based too heavily on reaction rather than prevention, that it gave too much initiative to the Soviet Union, and that it was not economically sustainable in the long run. Eisenhower, therefore, adopted the so-called New Look defense strategy, predicated on massive retaliation.
Eisenhower administration officials believed that the only way the Soviets could be deterred was to create the perception that the United States would initiate a nuclear response to any level of Soviet aggression, ranging from a limited conventional incursion against a peripheral interest to a full-scale nuclear strike against the United States. To further heighten its perceived credibility, massive retaliation was deliberately cloaked in ambiguity. It was believed that Soviet leaders would refrain from aggression if it was unclear whether an American nuclear response would be automatic. All of this, moreover, could be accomplished at a lower cost than the programs prescribed by NSC-68, meaning, in the words of Defense Secretary Charles Wilson, "more bang for a buck." As a result, the Eisenhower administration invested deeply in building the U.S. nuclear stockpile, although it was not successful in bringing down defense spending in any major or enduring way.
Similar to the way in which the Korean War shaped the perceptions of NSC-68 was the way in which the Soviet launching of Sputnik 1 (October 1957) impacted massive retaliation. Because Sputnik 1 was propelled into space by an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), it demonstrated that the American mainland was vulnerable to direct missile attack. This event, when coupled with the knowledge that the Soviet nuclear stockpile had increased significantly since 1949, forced many defense strategists to rethink the wisdom and prudence of massive retaliation. Although Eisenhower's policy was marginally more cost-effective, the ambiguity upon which much of the deterrent value was based also carried with it a heightened sense of brinkmanship and thus the possibility of nuclear war through miscalculation.
Eisenhower's political opponents, backed by several influential figures within his own military establishment, began calling for a more balanced military capability with a de-emphasis on nuclear weapons. By increasing NATO's conventional strength, the United States and its allies would, in response to Soviet aggression, be able to forgo the unpalatable choices of either nuclear annihilation or appeasement. In what was almost a direct throwback to NSC-68 and the Truman administration, John F. Kennedy's nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate saw him adopt the new doctrine of flexible response as the basis for national security policy.
Flexible response was put into action in 1961 following Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's ultimatum to end Western access rights to West Berlin. Conscious of the correlation of forces that in conventional terms were decidedly in favor of the Soviet Union and acutely aware that NATO's response to Soviet aggression lay in either humiliation or all-out nuclear war, Kennedy employed the sword and shield concept by increasing the presence of tactical nuclear weapons and initiating a significant buildup of conventional forces in Europe. In turn, Khrushchev quietly dropped his ultimatum.
This shift toward flexible response played a significant role in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. It meant that NATO's conventional deterrent and its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons gave time and pause to the escalatory process, maximized the possibility of a diplomatic settlement, and minimized the threat of war by miscalculation. Although the conflict was resolved peacefully, it made clear the dangers of brinkmanship and the threat of full-scale nuclear conflict. With these lessons fresh in their minds, both the United States and the Soviet Union began to seek a Cold War détente. The Limited Test Ban Treaty, signed in August 1963, imposed mutual restraint on large-scale atmospheric nuclear tests, and perhaps most significantly, a direct hotline was established between the White House and the Kremlin.
By the beginning of the 1970s, the Cold War military balance entered its third and final stage: rough nuclear parity. As the decade progressed and as both the United States and the Soviet Union increased their nuclear stockpiles, it became clear to both sides that a nuclear war was unwinnable. This underlay the concept of mutual assured destruction (MAD) and, paradoxically, the belief that mutual vulnerability was the key to stability and deterrence. This balance of strategic nuclear parity coupled with the massive conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact and the sword and shield concept embraced by NATO gave rise to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) that began in November 1969 and set the tone for much of the rest of the Cold War.
Yet for a short time it seemed that this balance would be upset yet again. Viewing détente as akin to appeasement, in the early 1980s President Ronald Reagan's administration believed that stability lay not in mutual vulnerability or assured destruction but rather in enhanced defense against a nuclear first strike. With this in mind, in 1983 Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a vast scientific and military program aimed at developing a new generation of space-based antiballistic missile (ABM) defenses. The objective of SDI was to create a multilayered defensive shield in space that could destroy hundreds of incoming ballistic missiles through electromagnetic guns and lasers mounted on satellites. It was a system that carried with it immense cost and invited harsh criticism that such a system could never be employed or perfected.
Fearing that it would be at a critical disadvantage in the event of a nuclear war, the Soviet Union responded with its own version of SDI and in doing so triggered a renewed arms race. Significantly enough, however, this occurred at the same time that the Soviet economy began to flounder. It quickly became apparent to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that the Soviet economy was unable to sustain high defense spending. Consequently, he moved to implement political and economic reforms that ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and thus the end of the Cold War military balance.
The American victory in the Cold War, no matter how Pyrrhic, had a lingering effect on the post–Cold War world. For many years, the West faced a marked vulnerability in conventional strength, yet with the demise of the Soviet Union and the ensuing revolution in military affairs, the United States found itself in the position of having overwhelming conventional superiority. Coupled with its superior technological capabilities, the U.S. conventional capability has been central to dealing with asymmetrical threats from terrorists and rogue states in the post–Cold War world.
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